Colin Wilson’s second book has been reprinted by Aristeia Press with a new introduction by Gary Lachman. It was generally critically scorned in 1957 but nowadays reads just as well – if not better – than his debut; it is a book in serious need of reappraisal. Out of print for decades, this is a welcome reissue of a lost classic. Watch the Aristeia Press website and this space for other rare Wilson texts to be reissued…
After the success of the first conference – see the post below – a second one will be held next year on the 6th of July. The full details are –
The Second International Colin Wilson Conference; University of Nottingham, Kings Meadow Campus, Lenton Lane, Nottingham, NG7 2NR. To be held on Friday the 6th of July, between 9:30 – 17:10. Eight speakers will present papers, there will be discussion, refreshments, and a tour of the huge Colin Wilson archive housed in the University. There are only 55 places in total and tickets for Friday are £36.50 – email Colin Stanley at firstname.lastname@example.org or call/fax 0115-9863334. Please be aware that tickets will sell fast. There will also be a rare chance to see an operetta co-authored by Colin Wilson on Saturday – for those who wish to attend both this and the conference the ticket price is £42.
Nicholas Tredell – Voyager and Dreamer: Colin Wilson’s Autobiographical Writing
Davd Moore – The Evolutionary Metaphors of Colin Wilson
Gary Lachman – The Outsider and The Work: Colin Wilson, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky
George C. Poulos – The Importance of The Outsider
Jason Reza Jorjani – Understanding The Atlantean Mind
Vaughan Rapahatna – The Hunt for Colin Wilson’s Lulu
Brendan McNamee – Body, Mind, Heart: 3 Aspects of Mysticism in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities
Jonathan Lewsey – Colin Wilson and Music
Special Event, Saturday the 7th of July, 10:00 – 12:30, at the George Suite, Mercure Hotel, Nottingham: Leon Berger introduces a special showing of Donald Swann and Colin Wilson’s operetta The Man With a Thousand Faces.
Proceedings of the First International Colin Wilson Conference, University of Nottingham July 1, 2016.
Ed. Colin Stanley, Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2017
The Sixtieth anniversary of the publication of The Outsider was commemorated by this conference of eight speakers (with a ninth paper published as an appendix) at Kings Meadow Campus in Nottingham University. Not only is this where the Dept. of Manuscripts and Special Collections have a gargantuan Wilson collection, it was also once the location of ITV’s Central Studios where David Frost spoke to Wilson on a one off show called Beyond Belief. I watched this at the time but for those who missed it, it’s here
Please note I have linked to a clip of each lecture and as the first lecture by Simon Brighton is about Wilson’s audio archive I recommend watching part two below. These videos also have plenty of discussion not present in the book.
Simon Brighton: The Colin Wilson Audio Project
Colin Wilson kept an audio diary from the “provisional” date of 1982 up until 2011. I once suggested to him in an email that I’d like to digitize all of them – I’m glad I didn’t as it seems to have been something of a Herculean task even for musician Simon Brighton (The Sons of TC Lethbridge, the Mayday! Mayday! EP featuring Stan Gooch). “Over a thousand” tapes were discovered all around Wilson’s home at Tetherdown and digitized to MP3 format. So, says Brighton, “the archive consists of over 2000 hours of audio.” Although some of the tapes were tangled and some were damaged “after a small fire which occurred when the telephone lines were struck by lightning” all the audio on these cassettes was extracted and converted. Bibliographer Colin Stanley was handed a drive of some 160 gigabytes of audio – Wilson kept recordings of his talks and interviews, of ideas for books, even thoughts “while driving to the supermarket” or on a train – and all of this will eventually be available to scholars at the Nottingham University archive. Now, what about all those Betamax videotapes of CW’s TV appearances that also need digitizing before they turn to analogue dust….
Prof. Stephen L. Clark: Lovecraft and the Search for Meaning
A lengthy and erudite talk on one of my favorite authors, now canonized but still somewhat misjudged to be a poor stylist in both The Strength to Dream and Edmund Wilson’s Classics and Commercials – the latter dismissing him as a writer of “silly stories about ‘omniscient conical snails’ and ‘whistling invisible octopuses.'” This is expertly challenged here.
Lindsay Siviter: Colin Wilson: Researching Jack the Ripper
“One of the youngest Jack the Ripper experts” and a guide on those Ripper tours which I went on years ago, although I’m fairly sure she wasn’t the expert who showed us around. Wilson of course coined the term “Ripperology” which shows no sign of running out of steam even today: there is even a “well established” magazine entitled Ripperologist! Siviter was the first researcher to visit Sir William Gull’s descendants, to “go through all his family papers and documents AND to have discovered a cast iron alibi” for him, with a thoroughness which Colin would have doubtless applauded. Going through the bibliography of Wilson’s output, Siviter discusses how many times the Ripper case appears in his work – a lot, as it started his interest in crime when he was a child. The field of Ripperology is, er, a cut throat business and theories and speculations are hotly contested – Wilson’s place in it’s development is well argued in this paper and Siviter continues to do excellent research today.
Nigel Bray: Colin Wilson and ‘Dread of Being’
Having read Bray’s book Bargaining with the Devil: The Work of Colin Wilson in a Cultural Context recently, I think I’m correct in saying this presentation is an excerpt from that book. To get an understanding of his dialectical approach to Wilson and his work, I’d like to quote from the book itself (which is Nigel quoting himself from his own journal after a re-reading of The Man Without a Shadow):
“It’s extraordinary. Terrible, repetitive style; pasteboard, comic book characters, and everywhere a slapdash attitude – to ideas, to emotions, to general structure…and yet the whole is compulsive, captivating… He throws all (genuine) literary objectives out of the window, and hammers at our laziness, our weakness, our defeatism, with a blunt instrument – his intrepid, style-starved prose, which can only be described as a long, rattling alarum. It’s like being roughed up by a docker, who’s been sent with the express purpose of knocking some sense into you.”
The lecture concerns itself with one of Wilson’s key topics, also central to Kierkegaard: boredom. That word “did not exist in the English language before 1750.” It’s equivalent can be found in the medieval concept of ‘accidie’ or ‘sloth, torpor or despair.’ These are still key concerns even as I write this, the sixty-first anniversary of publication of a book which was “an inquiry into the nature of the sickness of mankind in the mid twentieth century.” Bray is very well read and familiar with virtually every Wilson text, and this is a good taster for his lengthy and controversial examination of Wilson (which is a bargain if you own a kindle). He used to work for Brans Head who brought out the pamphlet Science Fiction as Existentialism.
Nicholas Tredell: A Ritual for Outsiders: Philosophy and Narrative in The Outsider and Ritual in the Dark
Tredell has been familiar with both The Outsider and Ritual since his early teens; this would account for the extraordinary layers of detail he is aware of in those two texts, and others – a footnote to his essay has a list of how many times various characters make themselves physically sick, for instance. He sees both The Outsider and Ritual as “quest-narratives” – real and fictional persons offer “help and hindrance” towards a search for truth. Less a book of quotations – it’s certainly not, if you’ve actually read it – The Outsider is rather “an index of evolutionary potential” but the “sense of potential is not the initial or constant note” which is probably why some lazy readers actually see it as a pessimistic book. So “that dreadful” (as Prince Charles described him) Terry Eagleton could write a piece entitled Colin Wilson’s Glumness Entranced Me As A Budding Teenage Existentialist for the Guardian. Both books with their emphasis on “control, clarity and deliberateness” contain everything with which Wilson was to concern himself in a myriad of genres which would baffle and anger critics until the end (and after). Tredell is one of Wilson’s sharpest literary critics.
David Moore: The Light Barrier: Existentialism and the Occult in Colin Wilson’s Science Fiction
An autodidact like Wilson, Moore runs an excellent Wilson themed blog here. In his presentation he speaks about an “apparent ‘leap'” from The New Existentialism of the mid sixties to the SF and occultism of 1967 and thereafter. He knows of course that there wasn’t really a leap – The Mind Parasites concept grew out of the Petri dish that was The New Existentialism (on p.161 to be exact) and had it’s origin in the Spectre of Blake’s Illuminated Books, familiar to any reader of The Outsider. No, as Colin Stanley has expertly pointed out, Wilson already had a fairly strong interest in the ‘occult’ – he even admitted owning about “five hundred volumes on magic and the supernatural” before 1971. In The New Existentialism, Goethe’s Faust is as much an archetypical Outsider figure as Oblomov. Wilson was as excited by the philosophical possibilities of science fiction as by the ‘philosophy of the will’ commonly known as magic(k). Moore remarks “viewed in this context, we can see how the optimistic philosopher behind the Outsider Cycle utilised science fiction as a metaphor – and a means – to the increasing of mankind’s strengths and possibilities.” Because he was using Brecht’s alienation affect with the emphasis on alien, his science fiction novels were parodies “in which Wilson can express his evolutionary implications” in an uninhibited fashion. Against Lovecraft’s misanthropy and materialism, “presenting a universe without values”, the new existentialist is concerned with creating new values of the Nietzschian kind. The core value, the most valuable, was a mysterious faculty…
Gary Lachman: Faculty X: Other Times and Places
From a former NYC punk guitarist turned prolific author (including last year’s massive and necessary Wilson study Beyond the Robot) Lachman gets to grips with the ‘phenomenological faculty’ by any other name. It’s interesting to note that Wilson’s ‘Faculty X’ concept didn’t spring up fully formed in 1971. As Lachman observes, the theory was “formulated” (in Wilson’s own words) “on a snowy day in Washington DC in 1966” slap bang in his new existential era, and he had spoke of it to Kenneth Allsop some nine years before that. But it didn’t have a name. Both Beyond The Outsider and The New Existentialism stress the need to map out new avenues of consciousness with precise language, and with his labeling of “Faculty X” in 1971, Wilson did just that. Careful readers of Proust will be familiar with it, as will eagle eyed neophytes tunneling their way through the later writings of occultist Kenneth Grant. Like David Moore, Lachman sees no real ‘break’ between the existential research of the fifties and sixties and the will powered occultism from 1971 and thereafter, and the examples he gives here bear that out. Any “attentive reader of Wilson’s first book […] who went on to read the ones that followed, […] would not have felt anything unusual” about his development of a theory regarding the reality of other times and places. Lachman quotes “the last cultural mandarin” George Steiner – “our dictionaries lag behind our needs.” It’s true; when Chesterton says we say things but don’t mean them, it’s because our ‘reality function’ is turned too far down; but when the ‘phenomenological faculty’ is fully operational “we say these things and we mean them, because we really know they are true.”
George C. Poulos: The Transcendental Evolutionary Philosophy of Colin Wilson
This is a fairly complex piece of psychological-scientific writing regarding Maslow’s theories and I’d strongly suggest that you buy the book to get the list of “pre-resquisists for the narrowing” as it’s difficult to summarize without losing some of it’s full impact. Mr Polous is an Australian who also spends time with his family on the Greek island of Kythera. He sums up his presentation with the words that readers of Wilson are prepared for the eventuality of imminent God-head, but it’s “how the other 7 billion people on the planet handle it that I really, really, worry about.”
Vaughan Rapahatna: Colin Wilson as Existentialist Outsider [Dr. Rapahatna could not deliver his lecture due to an injury so you’ll have to buy the book to read his timely thoughts on Wilson’s posthumous location in philosophy]
Rapahatna, previously known as Robertson to CW scholars, is a New Zealander and a poet and philosopher. He has written about Wilson for Philosophy Now and as part of the Colin Wilson Studies series (# 11, which is a section of his PhD thesis).
Like Nigel Bray, Rapahatna has what could be called a critical relationship with Wilson. Some of this criticism was previously collected in his Philosophical (a)Musings, and some is on this site. This particular lecture points out something I’d not properly understood despite more than three decades of study – Wilson’s very unlikely merger of two opposed stands of philosophy, linguistic empiricism and phenomenological existentialism. Even though this juxtaposition is actually announced on page 159 of his New Existentialism, and Beyond the Outsider ends with “The way forward lies through the development of language” I’d not immediately realized the full implications until I read this essay. But going back to the two Wilson texts mentioned above has been an extraordinary experience. Rapahatna notes that Colin Wilson is a “unique philosopher – English, existentialist, optimistic and with a strong insistence on the need for a structured and rigorous linguistic approach, which will bring about a completely divergent way to perceive and practice not only philosophy per we, but to live more consciously.” After reading both the sixth and seventh volumes of his Outsider Cycle again over the past week, this is a totally justified assertion. “Live more consciously” indeed.
“As such, he remains particularly relevant today, if not more so.” Why? Because “while post post-modernism is now in it’s death thoes – we are encountering the object based mantra of Speculative Realism, where no transcendental ego is deemed feasible as pre-existing objects themselves induce meaning perception”. I don’t doubt Wilson would have scoffed at Brassier and Meillasoux’s Romantic nihilism, and I think he might have been amused at Graham Harman’s belated assertion that phenomenological Cthulhu Mythos fiction is “a method of reverent parody that deserves to become a staple of philosophy.” Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Metaphorically speaking, Wilson had already broken into Heidegger’s chalet in the Black Forest and swapped the set of Hölderlin for The Necronomicon while this lot were learning to walk. Who knows what other things he’s anticipated?
I can’t wait to see…
Wilson’s bibliographer Colin Stanley has done a huge amount to collect, disseminate, promote and discuss Wilson’s work and legacy and we should be grateful for his remarkable efforts. Remember what Gerald Yorke did for Crowley! Another Colin Wilson Conference is set for July 6th, 2018 – full details soon.
The Free Cinema adaptation of Adrift in Soho has a crowdfunding appeal here. As it’s only available for a month please donate generously!
Emendations and a two page epilogue from CW’s own copy of his imperative 1966 masterwork (Introduction to) The New Existentialism, privately published by Maurice Bassett in 1995 and only available in the UK if you were a subscriber to the late Mr. Newman’s Abraxas. Item A130 in Stanley’s bibliography and now almost as rare as the copy it’s taken from. [Edit: the publisher still “has a few copies in storage” so you could contact him] This is from the Epilogue:
“So the next possibility that suggests itself to me is this. If the ignorance of my conscious mind is untrue – a fake – then how about my ignorance of who I am, what life is about, where I was before my birth and where I’ll be after my death…? Could I say that my birth was intentional too? This certainly seems to be the content of moments of mystical insight. One’s deeper layers come awake, and one loses the feeling of ‘alienation’ (which is due to the lack of contact with one’s intentional layers.) Is this why mystical experience makes death seem nonsense? Because we are propelled into birth and death by a deep intentionality, just as we are propelled into sleep or waking? That this will of mine, that is at present thinking these thoughts and using this typewriter to express them, continues to operate on deeper and deeper levels, and ultimately, beyond birth and death?”
Note the question mark.
“Deeper and deeper levels”; primal perception, pre-conceptual awareness; like the poets and philosophers said –
“The Antediluvians who are our energies […] formed this world into it’s sensual existence, and now seem to live in it in chains, are the causes of it’s life and the sources of it’s activity; but the chains are the cunning of weak and tame minds which have power to resist energy; according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning.” (Blake)
“The frightful energies – those which are called evil – are the cyclopean architects and road makers of humanity.” (Nietzsche)
“That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.”
Colin Wilson’s Lulu: an unfinished novel [Colin Wilson Studies # 27] Intro. by Vaughan Rapatahana. (Paupers’ Press 2016)
The Writing of Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho Including Charles Russell’s The Other Side of Town [Colin Wilson Studies # 26] Ed. Colin Stanley. (Paupers’ Press 2016)
“Man is a slave to the delusion that he is a passive creature, a creature of circumstance; this is because he makes the mistake of identifying himself with his limited everyday consciousness, and is unaware of the immense forces that lie just beyond the threshold of consciousness.” (Collected Essays on Philosophers, p. 110)
These three titles are both welcome additions to the Wilson canon and food for thought for newbies. For the latter, Collected Essays on Philosophers would be a good place to start. Drawn from various sources and from a fairly wide timescale, some of the essays will be familiar to old hands. Important thoughts on Spinoza, Nietzsche, Whitehead, Husserl, Sartre, Camus, Derrida and Foucault have previously appeared in Below the Iceberg, Anti Sartre, Existentially Speaking and The Bicameral Critic – but those books are now out of print rarities. For the hardcore there’s previously uncollected portraits of (mostly) logical positivists such as A.J. Ayer, C.D. Broad, Cassirer, Popper, Strawson, Warnock and Wittgenstein, some of which were originally written in the late Sixties. There’s a worthy introduction to Wilson’s philosophical position from John Shand, who is a rare specimen of open mindedness from the closed shop of academia.
Shand writes that “if Colin Wilson’s philosophy might be said to start with Husserl, it should be noted that it culminates in Nietzsche, the only philosopher in Colin Wilson’s view who managed to find a way of overcoming total nihilism”. Out of the two essays on Nietzsche presented here, Dual Value Response (1972) is an excellent illustration of what Wilson calls ‘the paradox of freedom’. All philosophers “who are worth anything”, writes Wilson, are trying to capture one or more of the objective meanings that surround us like apples in an orchard. Wilson compares philosophers to the peasant in Tolstoy’s short story How Much Land Does a Man Need (1886) which is worth reading to grasp his point. “Knowledge is in essence the schematisation of chaos” says Heidegger. Most philosophers are like Pakhom – Tolstoy’s greedy peasant – plodding and eventually breathless and exhausted. This disappointing lack of direction can be seen from quite a few of the philosophers Wilson discusses in this book. But worse than that, writes Wilson, “the “thing” remains unsaid.” But what is this “thing”?
This thing is a fierce, vast, far away, passionless, non-human force. It sounds like a concept from H. P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, but it’s actually that arch rationalist and anti-Nietzschean Bertrand Russell quoted from a letter which will be familiar to Wilson readers. (Curiously, Spinoza’s definition of God, also quoted in the Collected Essays, is similarly Lovecraftian: “[Some] unthinkable gigantic creature, like nature itself, breathing quietly in its sleep, unconsciously producing all the activity we see around us as a mere by-product of it’s tremendous breathing…”) This ‘thing’ isn’t data collecting, it isn’t just scientific knowing. It’s not enough just to ‘know’ life, “but to get to grips with it”, a point which will become apparent when reading Wilson’s meditations on Brentano and Husserl.
This is why Nietzsche still matters so much. Wilson remarks that there is something oddly real about Nietzsche, rather like the reality which Marcel knew when he tasted the cake and remembered his childhood in Combray – the opposite of Heidegger’s ‘forgetfulness of existence’. This is not scientific knowing, hence Nietzsche’s rather caustic criticisms regarding it’s pretensions to objectivity and ‘truth’ (which are now more relevant than ever). So although it’s amusing to see Wilson compare Nietzsche’s hammer philosophy to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, he only does so to demonstrate her sense of satire – against “Kantian moral tone and Rousseauistic gush” – which comes from her sense of reality, the same sense of reality which made Nietzsche formulate his razor sharp maxims against all strains of wishful thinking. (Like, for instance; “[you] start to mistrust very clever people when they get embarrassed.” (Beyond Good and Evil, maxim 88). Which is actually a good description of Wilson’s status obsessed critics.)
Rather than a peasant picking up apples, Nietzsche is more like a swallow swooping up and down for insights. Wilson thinks this could be partly due to his invalidism. To Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche is flawed because of his “contradictions”, but this is somewhat naive (if not disingenuous, considering Russell’s lecherous hypocrisy towards women). No, because Nietzsche was subject to what Wilson calls ‘dual value response’ – an abrupt change of focus from neutral/negative to positive – which is familiar to everyone but particularly common to poets, and can be seen in Nietzsche’s “perspectivism”. Nietzsche’s “revaluation [or transvaluation] of all values” is important as it is essentially an attitude towards life, a life affirming attitude. As Wilson notes, “under-energised thought will actually falsify the objects of perception.”
Two examples of ‘dual value response’ will be familiar – in 1866 Nietzsche wrote a letter to Carl Von Gersdorff describing how he had taken shelter on Leusch hill during a violent thunderstorm, and in 1870, walking alone on the Strasbourg Road during the Franco-Prussian war, Nietzsche had withdrawn himself at a wall as his old cavalry regiment passed by. Both of these times he was exhausted and depressed, during the first he was possibly physically nauseated – yet they clearly and directly influenced his life affirming philosophy of “Pure Will, without the confusions of intellect – how happy, how free.” As Wilson says both “are clear examples of sudden and total change of focus, from a state of fatigue and self-pity into a state of exaltation.” This change of focus is a ‘dual value response’. A reductionist would dismiss this from-negative-to-positive state as just ‘a feeling’, but for Wilson it is “a perception of value, and can be analysed in phenomenological terms.” Our responding mechanism can change focus – seemingly in an arbitrary fashion. Tasks we have dreaded become enjoyable. Holidays we have craved can be anticlimactic. But once we begin to analyse the mechanisms they can be controlled and will eventually be programmed at will. Because we possess “a sort of combination a microscope and a telescope” with our responses to situations we can shift focus from the small to the large, the trivial to the important, from the detail to the big picture, from the near to the far. However, layers of habit – human, all too human habit – arising from survival instincts generated from millennia of evolution have ensured that we mostly focus on near and trivial details, inducing a sense of emotional claustrophobia. But if this dual value response is dependent on a metaphorical microscope and telescope, and we use these to shift focus from neutral (or negative) to positive – like shifting gears – we can begin to realise what happens in this curious situation. Nietzsche made the common assumption that it was the stimulus itself which shifted the gear, but Wilson maintains that this is not the case.
Wilson wonders what would have happened if Nietzsche had lived long enough to have read Husserl’s Ideas. “If Nietzsche had known about separating the intention from it’s object – the noema from the noetic act – he would have ignored the stimulus itself […] and concentrated on the way that an act of will had “boosted” his perception. So we might have been spared a great deal of misleading stuff about Cesar Borgia…” This “misleading stuff” is the cause of all the insinuations towards Nietzsche’s “irrationalism” and even “fascism”. (Although after reading Wilson’s essay the Frankfurt School Marxist, Dr. Marcuse, it’s difficult not to smirk when recalling Nietzsche’s amusement at the discrepancy between “hopelessly bitter” strains of socialism and “the childish lamblike happiness of their hopes and desires.”)
Wilson’s ultimate aim was to merge these near and far insights simultaneously to generate a powerful sense of awareness. Wilson thought that the term for this awareness – the phenomenological faculty – was somewhat off putting, so with his tongue slightly in his cheek he instead labelled it ‘Faculty X’. This is the near and the far together, like the micro-macrocosmic harmony of mystical tradition but operating in the daylight of everyday experience.
So for Wilson, it is necessary to avoid regarding the stimuli itself as the generator of sharper perceptions. This insight is well described in Husserl and Evolution (originally from Existentially Speaking) as well as in the material on Sartre, Camus and Derrida. For those not familiar with the output of these thinkers, Wilson’s précis are exhilarating and honest. Sartre and Derrida both claimed to be more “phenomenological” than Husserl but even the success of their (once) fashionable celebrity careers cannot disguise the fact that neither truly held Husserl’s “radical attitude of autonomous responsibility”. Phenomenology, it should always be remembered, is an active method rather than just another philosophical theory, and no amount of linguistic critique can change the fact that this method works. This is why Wilson was so keen on Fitche and his assertion that the human subject can only know itself in action. So, rather than a pair of brutal vivisectionists dissecting Husserl’s ‘idealism’, Sartre and (particularly) Derrida were essentially Nietzsche’s “very clever people” who get embarrassed too easily. No the wonder the original title for the Derrida essay was Not To Be Taken Too Seriously.
The piece on A. N. Whitehead, with the “self contradictory” title Whitehead as Existentialist is a good retort to criticisms that Wilson was once a serious philosopher who ended up writing all kinds of irrelevant stuff on the supernatural, on crime and on the lost continent of Atlantis (c.f. virtually every cut ‘n paste obituary). In his Adventures of Ideas (p. 290) Whitehead states that “in order to discover some of the major categories under which we can classify the infinitely various components of experience, we must appeal to evidence relating to every variety of occasion.” There then follows a quote which will be familiar to Wilson readers – “Nothing can be omitted…” Whitehead goes on to note every type of experience relevant to philosophy, which I will now turn into a checklist –
Dominated by emotion/under self-restraint
In the light/in the dark
So Whitehead has more in common with Kierkegaard and the existentialists in that everyday experiences are the stuff of phenomenology, not just philosophical abstractions. It is interesting that he should regard experiences “abnormal” and “dominated by emotion” as worthy of study, as Wilson would study these, and many other ‘irrational’ types of experience in his occult and crime books. In his Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs (1964), speaking of the remarkable folklore surrounding ‘the mad monk’, Wilson notes that our minds are “continuously selecting, filtering, interpreting, colouring – and sometimes distorting and misinforming.” He goes on to say that “the question of illusion or reality is not as straightforward as it sounds. We are all doing something similar during every moment of our waking lives. (The only perceptions we might call “pure” are the sounds that filter through to us on the edge of sleep, or the things we see when the mind becomes a blank.)” Because it is difficult to catch the mind at work doing these distortions – although certain optical illusions can help – Wilson suggests that the “distorting power can be much better studied through the psychology of sex or religion, since the minds strongest forces are here in question.”
The “strongest forces” of the mind are fictionalised in Lulu, a novel which Wilson never finished (despite it’s twenty five year gestation and it’s eventual commission by the BBC) and is now presented in fragmentary form with appendices. It is a shame that this novel was never completed as it was intended to be something of an epic. Like his Metamorphosis of the Vampire, what remains of Lulu is something of a whispered rumour amongst hard core Wilson readers. When I asked Colin about it in 2007 he was certain he’d never finish it unless he found a millionaire patron. But fragmentary or not, and thanks to the efforts of Wilson scholar Vaughan Rapatahana and Wilson bibliographer Colin Stanley, it now appears in print – and unlike Metamorphosis of the Vampire, it’s in English…
Wilson’s fiction would often make use of Brecht’s Alienation Effect. With Lulu however, this technique didn’t quite work. Wilson commented that Brecht’s “device works beautifully for short periods” and we should remember that most of his “parodic” novels are fairly short. So he remarks that Lulu “defeated me technically.” Perhaps because of this, he had problems maintaining first person narrative (which he abandoned) and more importantly, because “the novel is designed to describe action, not inner states”, he had problems communicating the central character’s state of mystical consciousness. A young man with a photographic memory – he can recall any page of text from Gray’s Anatomy – Theo Pelham is the son of a self made fashion designer. Although I eventually warmed to Theo – or what’s left of him in these fragments – my first impressions of him were of an obviously gifted, but rather socially awkward individual. At first, when reading his conversational reactions, he seemed to be closer to the autistic spectrum than the seventh degree of consciousness, but as the narrative progresses, we start to see a strong development. Set in the late Sixties, Theo mingles with Angry Brigade student revolutionary types, the underclass and Montague Summers style defrocked vicars. There are some great set pieces – the suicide in Lulu’s dingy lodgings being a particularly striking one. So although the novel itself is an unfinished fragment, and remains a tantalising glimpse of what could have been, the appendices help remind us of Wilson’s intentions – he is concerned “with the conflict between two points of view” of materialism and ‘mysticism’ as well as being a “parallel study in Lulu’s natural ‘sex magic'”. Should it have been finished, Lulu could have ended up like a gigantic hybrid of Ritual in the Dark, The Killer and The God of the Labyrinth.
Adrift in Soho (1961) was also an unfinished novel – or rather a novel without a strict conclusion. Despite is slim size and haphazard construction it is still a hugely enjoyable read. (It has since been made into a film). Wilson kept his distance from scenes which would develop into “the Swinging Sixties”, saying (mostly) no to drugs “to induce higher states of consciousness, preferring more intellectually based methods” (as the introduction to The Writing of Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho points out). Because of this, Adrift in Soho isn’t so much of a period piece considering it documents the beatnik lifestyle. This recent addition to Paupers’ Press Colin Wilson Studies series – it’s volume 26 (Lulu is # 27) – contains the full text of Charles Russell’s The Other Side of Town. Russell, otherwise known as Belchier, was a thespian acquaintance of Wilson’s who wanted to find a publisher. Wilson thought Russell’s manuscript fascinating but probably unpublishable, so he basically rewrote it, adding elements of thinly disguised autobiography.
For scholars, inclusion of Russell’s manuscript is invaluable. There’s also a relevant section from Campion’s out of print Wilson biography and a section of unpublished notes from Wilson himself, plus a piece of first person reportage from The Sunday Dispatch at the start of 1961. My Night With the Beatniks is fairly self explanatory – “I always take a sleeping bag to London – you never know when you might need it.” Invited back to an enormous and noisy L shaped room, where a long haired beatnik strummed a guitar and another read from a bulky manuscript which “seemed to be a kind of poetry without metres”, Wilson “learned how a beat community was run.” Never sleeping until 4am or rising before midday, the eight male/four female community occupied an entire floor and survived by theft. Books were stolen (then sold to pay the rent) from Charing Cross Road, and self service stores were raided to make fairly disgusting sounding concoctions – “bacon, apples, raisins, cheese, tins of sardines and tins of soup” were all chucked into a communal cooking pot. This was washed down with cheap Spanish wine while Charlie Parker records played in the background. “No one had his own room – you slept anywhere you felt inclined.” A picture emerges of the drop out/squat culture that would last until perhaps the mid 1980’s. “You call everybody “man.”” Wilson sees this as a leftover from not only of Kerouac’s generation but of his own (unwanted) involvement with the Angry Young Men of the mid fifties. He sums up – “I am told that most beatniks end by taking a regular job and getting married.” Considering what happened to Charles Russell, who was something of a devotee of this bohemian anti-lifestyle, I see his logic. Writing to Wilson regarding his apparently idyllic life in the Mediterranean, a perfect hippie dream (it’s 1968) of lying in the sun, of beach-combing and weed, he ended up committing suicide in a German prison cell after bed been arrested trying to smuggle drugs worth £1500. Russell was 43 years old and of no fixed address.
Writing about Herbert Marcuse in the Collected Essays, Wilson notes that “real thinking crystallises from a cloud of intuitions, a forward moving excitement, which tends to make up its own terms as it goes along.” Marcuse would have doubtless found Charles Russell’s “Rousseauistic gush” perfectly rational, but his rigorous, emotionally driven dialectics leave no room for this cloud of intuitions, what Wilson calls “imponderables” (in literary terms, think Proust tasting the cake, Faust hearing the Easter bells etc). Real thinking uses everyday language as it’s basic instrument – like Wilson’s own clarified style – and “it has the advantage of allowing new considerations to slip into the argument without upsetting the whole scheme.” For Wilson, flexibility of thought is paramount. Reading these three books remind me how flexible Wilson’s thought was, and how exciting, unique and practical his insights continue to be. He developed a radical, workable method of creative perception, free from dogma and suffocating system building, free from the Messiah complexes which crippled too many of the mystics and philosophers he has discussed (see the Devils’s Party and Below the Iceberg). As John Shand writes in his introduction to the essays on philosophers, Wilson lived his outsider thesis, he didn’t, like David Hume, leave his philosophy behind in the seminar room. “If one really understood the outsider problem, had it as a lived part of one’s way of going on, something that permeated everything one might think and do, and think of doing, one then carried the problem into every aspect of one’s life whatever that life might consist of.”
The second International Colin Wilson Conference will be held on Friday July the 6th, 2018 at Nottingham University. Full details here but hurry! Half of the allocated places have already been taken. Those not able to attend last year’s’ successful conference can read all the relevant papers in a beautifully produced hardcover published by Cambridge Scholars. Not only does this volume sit neatly on the shelf with their Colin Wilson – Collected Essays on Philosphers it is also available for a strictly limited time at a reduced price if purchased from their website. This volume contains the transcripts of the papers presented at that inaugural one-day conference on July 1, 2016. Experts, scholars and fans, from around the globe, gathered to hear and present papers on a variety of Wilson-related topics ranging from Existentialism to the Occult; from H.P. Lovecraft to Jack the Ripper; and from Science Fiction to Transcendental Evolution.